4. Night Music by Urno Barthel

4.  Night Music

Urno Barthel

 

 It was the summer of my adventure among wild beasts.

###

When I was in grad school, studying and working round the clock, I was almost too busy to be married.  Ironically, that’s exactly when I was married.  After Sueann gave up on me to pursue her own career, I became a man with the time for companionship and the time to feel needy for not having it.

I had my old Artificial Intelligence program to talk to, which was, one, unsatisfyingly artificial, and two, as intelligent as a tree stump.  And it scored zero on the romance meter.  Thus, finding professional and romantic companionship was high on my list of personal goals.  Amazingly, after just two months at Halsted Aeronautic Laboratory, I thought I saw the prospect of both.

###

In my lonely state I was chatting with Holly, the Computer Science Admin, the one truly essential member of our department.

“Evan, we have a summer intern program.”

The topic seemed to come out of nowhere.  Never at a loss for words, I responded, “Oh?”

“For grad students.  Get an early look at ‘em.  Lure the good ones to HAL.”

“OK,” I said.  “Guess I would have liked to know about that back when I was in grad school.  Sorry I missed the chance to consider it.”

She looked at me like, you don’t get it, do you?  “There’s a HAL pizza party on Friday.  Here’s a couple of flyers.  Why don’t you find Jessica Neal and give her a copy?”

“Hm, guess that would be an intern.”

Holly favored me with a smile.  “Now you’re waking up.  Look for a woman with short hair you haven’t met yet.”

###

It was not only Jessica’s hair that turned out to be short.  She was a few inches above five feet, you would never find her in a crowd.  However, pert and pretty enough that I would give Holly a big thank you.

Fortunately for my social goals, the other resident of the shared office was away.  Jessica’s summer project turned out to be a management information system for small remote facilities.  HAL had her developing demo software to establish requirements; the eventual product might be sold to the State Department and other agencies.  Not exactly research, but a good assignment for an early grad student.

More interestingly, she was from Atlantic City, not exactly a Silicon Valley of high tech.  “How did you wind up in computer science?” I asked.

“My father’s been in casino operations for years.  Currently at Hard Rock.  Advertising brings in visitors, but to make a profit it’s all numbers, numbers.”

“So you were a math whiz?”

“Not really,” she said.  “But I wasn’t scared of math, and science looked like a stable career.  More than casinos, anyway.”

“How do you like Cornell?”

“The school is great.  The Rutgers people were right about that, at least.  But no one told me about winter.”

I mimed a shiver.  “I love snow,” I said.  “And then when I’m done skiing, I love to get in the car and drive to the beach.”

“It will take me all summer to thaw out.  Anyway, what’s the story on this party?”

“I’m new here, but I gather that whoever feels like it ‘pools to the café on Swarthmore several Fridays thru the summer.  HAL buys the pizza but the wine and beer are on us.  Why don’t I give you a ride over?”

###

At five o’clock the narrow courtyard at Caffé Italiano was throbbing with young blood, the few dozen HAL professionals who were single and under 30.  To these were added a few mentors and managers who discreetly faded away after one glass of wine.  Jessica charmed me – I learned that she had grown up schmoozing with thoroughbreds at the Atlantic City Race Course, and that she was not averse to a midweek date.

That date was dinner at the Miramar, an old and stuffy Santa Monica hotel with a vibrant restaurant and bar.  Our evening was mainly notable for the warm-up while we had cocktails.

The lounge overflows from lobby to courtyard, and our table was unsteadily balanced at the precise overlap between cozy interior and sunset-tinged patio.  I studied the salmon sky framing the palms, Jessica stared at a wall-sized painting next to the bar.

“Evan, have you seen that mural?”

I glanced inward and registered a South Seas scene:  sky, water, beach, palm trees.  “Um, they reworked this place recently with a tiki theme.”  I lifted my glass in a toasting gesture, flaunting its umbrella.  “So I guess that’s generic Polynesia.”

“OK, but follow it off to the left.”

I took a closer look and saw that palm trees morphed into a tropical jungle.  There was a monkey hanging from a tree limb.  “Yeah, I’ve never heard of monkeys in Tahiti.”

“And how about the cat?”

I goggled.  The artist had taken liberties, or didn’t know his continents.  In any case, so help me, he had depicted a tiger, tucked into the brush.  “Good eye, Jessica.  That’s a surprise!”

She looked pleased.  “I can spot ‘em.  Even when they’re invented.”

That gave me an idea.  “Maybe you’d like to spot real ones?”  She raised her eyebrows and I pressed forward.  “L.A. Zoo.  Pretty nice one.  Maybe on Saturday.”

“I’d like that a lot.  At Cornell I have to drive more than an hour to Syracuse.  And a zoo during winter is not much fun.”

We had a pleasant dinner in the Miramar restaurant, grilled salmon for me, tournedos for her.  There was plenty to talk about, technology for sure, veering off into horses and east-west contrast.  Naturally I gave her the So Cal Chamber of Commerce pitch.  After a set of music in the lounge, we figured that was enough for a weeknight, and I drove Jessica to her apartment in Palisades.  She mentioned that her roommate was home, as if to apologize for not inviting me in.  However, before getting out of the car she gave me a kiss that spun my head.

I realized as I drove home that there was romantic potential here.  Scientist plus sex, how could you beat that?  And where Jessica was concerned, a lot of visual appeal in a small package.  Her big brown eyes imprinted my data base.

###

The day at the zoo turned out to be indeed, a Day.  Jessica wanted to be there when they unlocked the gate, and stay until they put the animals to bed and shooed us away.  More than I bargained for, but I was game, away we went.

The Los Angeles Zoo is not gigantic, so it surprised me that you could spend a lot of time there.  It was not just a matter of reading the placards and catching the shows.  Being not in a rush paid dividends, because when we waited and watched, animals would appear from nowhere and start doing stuff.

The only hiccup, if you want to call it that, occurred at lunch.  The café we chose on the zoo grounds had gone all-out with their theme, featuring Tiger Burgers, Lion Burritos, Hippo Nuggets – well, you get the idea.  Jessica blanched, with a squeaky sound.  Seeing her distress, I pointed to the small type below Hippo Nuggets, which proclaimed ‘tastes like chicken’.  She finally ordered the chicken sandwich, which was called, um, Chicken Sandwich.  So as not to offend the hypersensitive, I guess.

Calorie-stoked, we continued till 5 p.m. when they literally herded us out the gate.  Jessica was glowing and bubbling about the day, distracting me from the normal L.A. traffic jam.  I piloted us to Border Grill, a foodie tribute to Latin food in downtown Santa Monica.  It was there that Jessica made the first of what turned out to be a series of Culinary Announcements.

“Evan,” she proclaimed, “I’ve made a decision.  I’m going to skip red meat from here on.  There’s plenty I can eat without being that much of a carnivore.”

“Mm, I had a burger at lunch, and I don’t think there was a tiger in it.”

“Yes, I know, they’re just being clever.  But the idea bothered me, it got me thinking.”  I must have acquired deathly pallor, because she hastened to add, “Go on and eat whatever you want, Evan.  This is just my thing, I can ignore what’s on your plate.”

Hm, I said to myself.  That’s what she says.  I started studying the menu, running my finger down the Platos Especiales.  I paused at Chicken Poblano Enchiladas, watching Jessica with my high-resolution peripheral vision.  No reaction.  Yucatan Pork.  I saw her eyes narrow.  Gaucho Steak.  Her mouth opened and she seemed about to say something.  I quickly retreated to the Sautéed Shrimp and saw her relax.  Oh well, I thought, I can grab a side of cow elsewhere.

Although the walking around had wearied me, food pumped my energy and I thought we might cross the street to the jazz club.  However, Jessica wanted to go home.  When we arrived, she said, “I know it’s early, but Sharon’s at a party, she won’t be home till late.  So it’s a good time to show you my place.”  A tour which included a romp in the bedroom, leaving me happy indeed.

Was it the day at the zoo, or my nixing the beef, that brought me this romantic reward?  I wasn’t inclined to count the teeth of this particular steed.  However, clearly animals were Jessica’s thing, perhaps even her obsession.  And if that’s what she wanted on her metaphorical plate, I would be happy to serve them up.

###

So we embarked on my Animal Summer.

You know, we scientists are born problem solvers.  Women don’t count as problems, they are ineffable mysteries, inherently insoluble.  However, if animals were the key to Jessica’s heart – or at least, to her libido – that was a concrete problem I truly wanted to tackle.

I don’t know how I found the time with a full time job.  In every idle moment I was searching promising venues to feed Jessica’s appetite for fauna.  I became an expert on the offerings of Animal Planet, Discovery, National Geographic, Public TV.  I knew when a late show host invited a zoo guy with his cadre of eager young helpers cuddling critters of all kinds – critters too young to look at the host and think ‘dinner’.  And when the thirtieth tour of Lion King hit Hollywood, we were down front.

The more interesting the entertainment, the more romantic Jessica became.  Mammals were more exciting than other kinds of animals.  And mammals of human size or larger were the most thrilling of all.  Passion was on the rise.

###

We went to other venues besides the zoo, but these sometimes had an alarming downside.  Nuggets of conversation pop up in my memory, like shards of chocolate in a pint of Cherry Garcia.

In one vignette, we’re at the Los Angeles Arboretum, sitting on a somewhat uncomfortable concrete bench.  We sipped iced tea and watched two peacocks strut and display.  Their show was meant not for us but for a lone peahen, pecking at ground cover, pretending not to see them.

“Great duds,” I said, “like chickens dressed for the opera.”  I thought I was being clever, but Jessica sucked in her breath, and next I knew tears were leaking down her cheeks.

“You’re right, Evan,” she said, “I hadn’t thought about it.  Of course, all birds are sort of cousins.”  She continued with a rising pitch, “Yesterday I had a chicken salad sandwich!”

Oops.  That was that, fowl was off the menu, just like that she became a fishetarian.  OK, it’s pescetarian if you want to be picky, but either way my appetite didn’t like it.

That was bad enough, but a week later things deteriorated further.  We were visiting the Aquarium in Long Beach, a world-class venue with every kind of water-loving critter.  Midday found us in Café Scuba, by the window above the sea lions.  I splashed into my clam chowder with enthusiasm while Jessica manfully – well, womanfully – struggled to eat fish and chips.

Finally she pushed the plate aside.  “They had to kill something to make this fried fish.”

I fished a white cube out of my chowder and displayed it on my spoon, addressing it.  “Now you, Mr. Potato, you aren’t alive right now, are you?”  I paused and received no reply.  “I thought not.”  I popped it into my mouth.

“That’s different.  The potatoes don’t run away when you go after them.  Perhaps they want to be eaten, perhaps that’s their reason to exist.  But the fish know what’s going on, they try to escape when you hook them or net them.”

“Hm.  But this clam wasn’t going anywhere when they collected him.”

She gave me a pointed look.  “Well, even your lowly clam snaps his shell to keep you out.”  So, God help me, one trip to the Aquarium turned her into a vegetarian.

Did I become a vegetarian too?  Not at first.  I stoked my protein urge when Jessica was not around.  At home I wolfed beef jerky.  Burgers.  Ribs.  Tuna salad.  All the forbidden fruit of field and sea.

But I couldn’t continue, it felt dishonest.  I know that she said I should eat what I want, but I could see her gratitude when I stuck to her diet of the moment, and I could see her alarm when my eyes lingered lustfully on someone else’s bacon double cheeseburger.  And frankly, the sex kept improving.  Jessica’s compulsion with diet seemed to be peeling away her inhibitions in bed.

I was left with a stark dilemma:  Lust, or Gluttony?  You can imagine which had the bigger draw for a twenty-eight-year-old male.  I opted to stick with Jessica, and to face both challenges:  not only did I need to find more and better animal venues, I also needed something, anything, that I could bear to eat.  Jessica seemed happy with plain vegetables, but the rumbling of my stomach demanded more.

Animal adventures were easy to find compared with palatable vegetarian food.  Tofu is repulsive and squidgy.  Vegieburgers taste about like they sound.  Ethnic foods were more promising.  I liked Indian food, but how much can a person eat?  I had dal, samosas, aloo gobi up to here.  We ate a goodly ration of mideastern food – hummus, falafel, baba ganoush.  I found an Ethiopian restaurant which introduced me to the great stuff you can pile onto injera bread.

Cheese finally bailed me out.  Rice and beans may be complete protein, but cheese is edible protein.  Cheese enchiladas.  Mac and cheese.  Quiche.  Pizza Margarita.  Cheese omelet at any hour.

I became a connoisseur of cheese, no, a glutton of cheese.  If Jessica could obsess with animals, I could throw myself into milk fat.  Any day you cared to inspect it, my fridge was festooned with half a dozen discoveries from the Beverly Hills mecca.  I was working my way through their catalog of 130 cheeses, with happy distractions from their in-store specials.

###

As I cast my animal net wider, San Diego protruded like Everest in your living room.  My parents being retired to Oceanside, I was familiar with the far-flung San Diego Zoo, and it would be my privilege to introduce that destination to my increasingly cozy girlfriend.

“Jessica,” I said one afternoon, “I’d like to propose a weekend at San Diego Zoo.”  She knew it by name, but hadn’t realized how very close it was.  I regaled her with its scope and virtues.  “I thought I’d book a room nearby, so we could sample it Saturday and Sunday.”

“Just one room?” she said, a bit coyly I thought.

“I’ll get a suite with a sofa bed.  We’ll be as formal as you like.”

Thus Saturday morning found us tromping around one of the greatest zoos anywhere.  Spoken with my California Booster hat on of course.  There are four miles of paths and only wimps take the bus, so we made good use of our walking shoes and water bottles.

For the first day, we decided to concentrate on the eastern half of the park and entered the “Urban Jungle” section.  Rhinos and giraffes were housed next to kangaroos and wallabies, as if continental drift had been repealed by an overeager state legislature.

A gaggle of middle schoolers was clustered at the giraffe enclosure being informed by an invisible person.  At least so I thought, until the inborn restlessness of twelve-year-olds revealed a zoo staffer, no taller than some of his pupils.  “Jengo is our sire,” said the guide, indicating the tallest animal.  He had a slight lilt to his voice.  “He’ll stay with us until the Species Survival Plan swaps him for another male.  It’s much easier to transport one bull than a herd of ten cows.”  Zoospeak I guess.  He was warming up to discuss the gestation period of the giraffe, but kids are restless, so the guide and the chaperones corralled them and moved out of the area.

The Jungle was only the beginning.  From there we visited the Africa section with its large elephant compound.  A quick lunch, up the escalator to polar bear country, then across to visit pandas.

By then it was four-thirty, and we could have quit for the day.  But having a few more minutes, we took another look at the Jungle.  Where we found something I had never seen before.

There were no school kids, no staff, just the giraffes with their own show.  Since the morning, Jengo had become randy and was trying to make little giraffes with a less than cooperative female.  His business part was highly visible, amazingly long, pink and dripping.

We were not the only ones transfixed by the spectacle of God’s master plan being executed.  Two boys, perhaps 6 and 8 years, were glued to the railing while parents tugged at their arms.  “Daddy, why does he have a curl at the end of his weenie?” asked the larger kid.  A question which no one present attempted to answer.

I’ve never been a copulation voyeur, so it was OK with me that a staffer appeared to declare closing time.  Nonetheless, I filed this experience away as yet one more wonder of the animal kingdom.

###

Our suite at the Solamar Hotel had a partial view of the Gaslamp Quarter, where we entertained ourselves with dinner and live music.  Before midnight we were back at the room.

“Jessica, may I help you warm up that big bed?” I asked.

She murmured a yes and started to undress.

“Mm, I like the, er, lingerie,” I said.  Both panties and bra had a vibrant leopard print.

“I shopped for the occasion,” she said.  “Ready to join the wild creatures.”

She meant this more than I realized.  We were engaged in quiet foreplay when she said, suddenly serious, “Evan, remember those giraffes.  The big one, Jengo, he was feeling romantic, wasn’t he?”

I had to agree.  “Yes, but the lady wasn’t ready.  At least, while we were there.”

“Evan, play a game with me please.”  I didn’t know the game, but I wasn’t going to refuse.

“I want you to pretend you’re Jengo, and I’m a girl giraffe.  You’ve got me cornered, and I’m really getting in the mood.”

And then, so help me, she knelt on the floor, chest on the bed, not a stitch on, presenting me those beautiful buttocks.  I am always ready, no, eager, to do a lady’s bidding, so I grabbed a condom.  Then I had a thought.  “Will that be fun for you?”

“Yes, that’s what I want,” she said.  “Yes, like that.  Oh!  Go on, poke me.”

I must draw the curtain at this point, but it’s enough to say that San Diego marked a new high mark in our sexual compatibility.

###

The summer with Jessica was beginning to feel like mania.  It was hard to remember I had simply hoped for a scientist chum who might also become a romance.  Now, my waking hours were a constant search for bigger and better animal venues, more and tastier vegetarian restaurants.  My energy to pursue these goals was stoked by the erotic benefit that accrued.  And all three of these factors – animals, diet and romance – participated in our next field trip.

The only finer venue for animals than the San Diego Zoo is Safari Park, an annex to the Zoo in the countryside.  The Zoo has thousands of animals in high tech habitats that amount to cages;  however, the Park has thousands of acres where humans are caged in a small area and animals roam free.  At least, that’s the image that presents itself to the visitor.

We started with a tour where nine zoogoers climbed onto a flat bed truck and, rattling and bouncing, rode right into the habitats.  Our guide’s badge identified him as Pradeep from Mumbai.  I recognized him as the giraffe expert who had wrangled the kids at the Zoo.

We stopped in the giraffe section and four of them immediately came over to check us for snacks.  Pradeep produced a supply of acacia leaves, each of which was sufficient motivation for a gigantic head to be thrust into your face, immense tongue hanging out and flapping to be fed a leaf.  We were told that an 18 foot giraffe has an 18 inch tongue.  And, I could have added, another part of similar length.

The rhinos were less pushy but no less enthusiastic to see us.  With them, we had the pleasure of holding out half an apple.  A giant mouth would envelop your hand, taking the apple and leaving slobber all the way up the forearm.  They were bottomless pits and would keep eating for as long as you were willing to feed them.

Speaking of eating, Jessica gave me yet another dietary shock, one that perhaps I should have anticipated.  Lunch found us at the Mombasa Cooker where she told me, with some hesitation, that she had decided to drop dairy from her diet.  “Evan, after I read how factory farms treat cows and chickens, I just can’t face milk and eggs.”

I tried to hide my panic.  Somewhere I had gotten the idea that cheese, my nourishment lifeline, had something to do with milk.  I glanced at the menu, grabbing for the proverbial straw, finding Asian rice bowls and stir-fry.  I swallowed hard and decided to buy the program.  “I guess that makes you a vegan?” I said.

She was pleased.  “I knew you’d understand!  Look, I’m sure there are things here we can eat.”  Such was my stock with this young woman that she had mentally included me in her eccentric quest, clearly headed toward a zero calorie diet.  I resolved never to show her the Dirty Dozen list of pesticide-laden produce – we would starve for sure.  And I would never encourage her to research too deeply the ingredients of stir-fry sauces.

So the trip was a culinary bust.  But that evening, Jessica was friskier than ever.  Feeding those hungry, persistent beasts had given her all kinds of sexy ideas.  I did my best to cooperate.

###

The main San Diego Zoo is good, and Safari Park is better.  Better yet is climbing into a truck and going out to feed critters as we had done.  But the ne plus ultra of the Park is the Roar and Snore sleepover.  Naturally I wanted to have that experience with Jessica.

The July sleepover found us in a tent in the heart of the Park.  I had thoughtfully shopped for sleeping bags that could be zipped together, and we were snuggling when the music of the night began.

As I had expected, or at least hoped, Jessica wanted to make love as soon as the snuffles began.  What I had not anticipated was that every time the monkeys chittered, she trembled;  when an elephant rumbled, she thrashed around;  when a lion roared, she went wild with passion.  She was out of her head, in another world.  She knew I was there, but her mind was in the jungle, running through the brush or swinging in the trees.  When the sounds finally ceased, she relaxed and drifted to sleep.  By then I was exhausted and collapsed into a dreamless state.

It’s a good thing I slept soundly, because when I next became aware, the first lightening of dawn was at hand.  Crowned cranes were squawking and Jessica was kissing me vigorously and with purpose.  In a moment, we were again in the heat of passion, punctuated by hoots of chimpanzees and the occasional roar of a big cat.  I loved it but I was also a bit intimidated.  This demure young thing, a cool jewel at HAL, was a flamin’ mamie here in the wild country.

Finally the noises of animals receded into the chatter of other campers, rustling themselves together for breakfast.  Jessica looked into my eyes and said, “It’s our Kingdom, Evan.”

“Huh?” I replied.

“They’re part of us, you know.  The whole Animal Kingdom.  Our cousins!”

I was too pooped to discuss this proposition intelligently, or even to react.  I revived a bit after we showered and dressed.  Oatmeal, coffee and juice were the offerings that suited our sparing diet and we consumed these as several guides, including the ubiquitous Pradeep, described the daybreak activities of their favorite wild friends.  After eating, still glowing from our overnight experience, we walked out to see the beasts who had disturbed and enhanced our sleep.

Driving back to L.A., Jessica dozing next to me in the Outback, I reflected on the experience.  I’ve always been a firm believer in ‘more is more’ – no minimalism for me!  There may be exceptions, things like salt and Tabasco sauce, but they certainly don’t include sex.  However, after the night’s activity, I had an inkling that there was a limit as to how much sex my weary body would enjoy.  The inkling didn’t discourage me from continuing the quest for bigger and better animal experiences.  However, I had to admit that the quest itself had become an obsession, more important than the goal.

On the other hand, Jessica didn’t question the nature of things:  I detected no introspection or self-analysis on her part.  She simply loved animals and as she fed that love it overflowed, engulfed me, swept me along.

###

You haven’t heard much about technology in this story.  In the past, I was able to put my love life aside during the workday.  However, this summer I was out of control.  For one thing, Jessica was right down the hall, available for coffee or lunch or chat, any time at all.  In addition, my continual pursuit of food and beasts was a never-ending homework assignment, intruding all hours of day and night. So truth to tell, I was barely earning my keep at HAL.

We continued to sample animal venues all over L.A.  Petting zoo at the County Fair?  We’re in, but keep away from those barbecue stands, the aroma might make me faint from hunger.  Horse riding in the Malibu hills?  Jessica was bouncing in her saddle and I was back there on the trail, trying to keep up.  Python Mania at Natural History Museum?  Count us in!

None of these attractions came close to the Roar and Snore experience, so I was eager to take Jessica to the next one in mid September.  Even better, I learned that sometimes Safari Park offers a special Elephant Odyssey.  You walk with the keepers as they feed the animals and give them their physicals, then sleep in a tent next to the elephant house.  I thought, wow, if Jessica is so worked up by some roars and snuffling, how would she react to an elephant rumble or trumpet, just outside our tent?  Unfortunately I saw little chance for the Odyssey – after Labor Day she was supposed to be in Ithaca.

###

On the first Wednesday in August Jessica was absent from her desk at HAL.  Her officemate was fuzzy about details but thought she’d return Thursday afternoon.  Naturally I gave her a call to check in.

“Oh, hi Evan.  I’m at UCSD today.   I finally tracked down the department head so I’m visiting the comp sci department.”

“Are they working in your area?” I said.

“Not quite.  But I’m still early in grad school.  I thought I might be able to transfer to San Diego.”

“Wow,” I said.  “That’s not exactly my back yard but it’s better than having you 3000 miles away under a snowdrift!”

Jessica must have scored with the university, because she started spending each Wednesday and half of Thursday down south.  Being a persuasive lady, she wrangled a guest office in La Jolla and permission from HAL to populate it part time.  Soon after, she and I were sipping a drink at Yamashiro in Hollywood, and I asked how San Diego was coming.

“I’ve improved on the model.  I got a zoo membership, so I spend Wednesday afternoon there or at Safari Park,” she said.

“That cuts into your workday,” I observed.

“Well, the zoo closes at five and I go back to campus.  I can eat a sandwich in my office and work till 9 or 10 without any distraction.”

“You must be learning everything there is about every critter.”

“Oh, there’s always so much more to discover.”

Selfish me, it dismayed me that I was no longer Jessica’s principal portal to the animal world.

###

Late in August on a Thursday morning, Jessica called me from San Diego.  “Evan, I have news!  UCSD took me on, I can transfer my fellowship from Cornell.”

“Great, Jessica!”

“Yes, I’m changing my program.  I’ll get a BS in zoology along with an MS in computer science, and work on zoo management software.”

“Is that anything like the MIS stuff you’ve been doing?” I asked.

“Almost the same.  I’ll be tracking animal diets, genetics, health records.  Different domain, similar data structure.”

I could see immediate benefits to my social life.  “Then I should book us for the Roar and Snore on September 17,” I said.

“Er, no, sorry, I’m tied up that day.”

“Well, I have an even better offering.  Safari Park is running Elephant Odyssey in early October.  I have to check the date.”

Silence on the line.  Then she said, “Evan, I’m sorry, but I’m seeing someone else now.”

Huh?  We had been torridly together as recently as a week ago.  I was surprised.  I didn’t know what to say, so I said, “I’m surprised.”

“Well, I owe Deepie a favor.  He got me in to see the zoo director, they gave me an internship.  It will fit right in with my studies.”

“Deepie?” I inquired.

“Pradeep.  You know, the guide at Safari Park.”

“Hm, I thought we were following him around, but perhaps he was following you around.”

“No, I think it’s coincidence.  I saw him at the zoo, I needed a way to contact management, he was willing to help.”  She paused again.  “I like you Evan, I honestly do.  But I’m getting fond of Deepie too, and I want to be here with the animals.”

“Jessica,” I said, “I’ll miss you.  But I give you my best wishes.  I want it to work out for you.”  And that was that.

###

Six p.m. on Friday in early January.  A blizzard blanketing New York State, putting me in mind of Jessica.  And who should call but the lady herself.  We had exchanged e-mails, but I had not heard her voice since she left HAL.

“Evan, it’s me!”

It took me a moment to process the sound bits.  “Oh.  Jessica.  Hello!”  I wondered whether she was about to re-enter my life.  No such luck.

“I wanted to give you the news.  I’m engaged to Deepie!  We’re going to get married in May.”

“Uh, congratulations!”  This was a lot to digest.  “Mm, are you going to live in Mumbai?”

“No, no.  He’s been in America since he was five.  He’s 100% adapted here.”

I thought for a moment.  “Jessica, are you still a vegan?  And is, uh, Deepie a vegan?”

“No, that’s changed.  He’s a vegetarian, like many Indians.  He’s got me eating dairy again.”

“What persuaded you?” I wondered.  That was a piece of knowledge I wished I had while I was dating her.

“He showed me that sometimes a mother giraffe refuses to let her baby nurse.  So the zoo uses a formula made with cows milk to bottle-feed the calf.  I figured, if the animals can help each other, I guess it’s OK for them to help us too.”

“Well, good for you,” I said, thinking of the wealth of cheese in my fridge.  “That gives you lots more to eat.”

“Evan, the real reason I called was to thank you for setting me on the right path.  It was such a wonderful summer, you opened up my life.  For the first time I really know what I want.  I’ll invite you to our wedding.”

###

Back when Jessica said goodbye, I had officially reassigned animals.  They were no longer friends, companions, family members;  henceforth they were groceries.  But my latest conversation with her moved me to more forceful action.

I went straight to the Chart House and ordered up a 16 ounce prime rib.  I piled my baked potato with as much butter, sour cream and crumbled bacon as it could hold.  Creamed spinach with pancetta?  You bet!  Perhaps Jessica’s loftier diet would be wise in a future world of shortage and overpopulation.  But I would postpone evolving for as long as I could.

What had I learned?  Jessica had admirable intellect, but she and I had pushed that aside.  Sex was great, but when the lights were out, I suspect she was imagining Jengo.  And all summer I had been starving for real food, prey on four hooves.  Perhaps it was for the best.

Still – I really wish Jessica and I had visited the elephants.

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